The Fruits of Gridlock

By Brannon, Ike | Regulation, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Fruits of Gridlock


Brannon, Ike, Regulation


The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy

By Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley

300 pages; Brookings Focus Press, 2013

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Innovations spread through an economy in complicated ways, especially when we look beyond the private sector. For instance, economists have noted that the surprisingly slow adoption of leading-edge medical practices across the United States mirrors the glacially slow propagation of hybrid crop seeds a half-century ago.

In this new book, Brookings Institution researchers Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley celebrate American metropolitan leaders of the last decade whom they consider forward-thinking and innovative politicians. To a degree, it's hard to argue with their choices. For instance, they laud both Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, which seems appropriate given the remarkable transformation of New York City in the last 20 years, with crime rates down by over two-thirds, public schools improving after hitting rock bottom, and tangible improvements in transportation. Along with various other developments, these efforts add up to a greatly increased quality of life in the city, and the government helped to achieve that. It's hard to look at today's New York City and not give Giuliani and Bloomberg some credit for these changes, concluding that effective government can make a difference.

But not all metropolitan areas have been as innovative and successful as New York City, and some of the innovations trumpeted by Katz and Bradley may not work elsewhere--or even in New York. For instance, in the last two years the city held a competition among several universities to award the winner a sizeable parcel of land on Roosevelt Island, along with $100 million in infrastructure support, in return for the winner using the parcel to establish an innovative applied sciences campus in the city. Cornell won the contest, thanks in part to an alumnus coughing up $100 million in project support to push them over the top. Bradley and Katz trumpet this investment as laying the groundwork for a new high-tech era in the New York economy, with the promise of helping the city insulate itself from its dependence on the finance industry for jobs and tax revenues.

More engineering students are probably a good thing for society. And employing an underused parcel of land to get an Ivy League school to make a major investment in the city is probably a far superior use of that resource than the usual things that cities do with land. But New York's future as a science hub is far from a sure thing: while young computer programmers and electrical engineers may like living in Brooklyn, expecting that some sort of economies of agglomeration will develop because of this investment is dicey.

New York's supremacy owes itself to many things, and it has re-invented itself myriad times. These days, finance drives the city's economy, although it is not impossible to envision a world where Wall Street plays a much smaller role in the global economy--or even New York's economy--than today. Regulatory overreach, greater global competition shrinking finance's outsized profits, or technology lessening the need for central financial districts could all shrink Wall Street's footprint. The city's desire to diversify away from finance is laudable, but chasing the sexy seek jobs every other big city desires may not work, especially when the city has no comparative advantage other than being a hip locale.

But being a place where people want to live is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, improving a community's livability is probably the best thing a mayor or city council can do to attract jobs. Entrepreneurs also like living in places with good schools, low taxes, and clean streets. In the long run, the Brooklyn brand as a hip, fun place to live and work will lead to more jobs created in New York than Cornell's tech campus. …

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